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on plutonium and fearmongering. [Jun. 27th, 2005|02:59 pm]
The Bush administration has just announced that for the first time since the end of the cold war, they will be producing Pu-238. News reports are carrying this story as production of a "highly radioactive substance, a speck of which can give you cancer". Plutonium is reported to be one of the most deadly poisons in the world. I used to accept this as truth. Then I found out:

As a poison, plutonium is probably less poisonous than cyanide, possibly less poisonous than Tylenol or caffeine. No one has ever died of plutonium poisoning.

Pu-238 is a strong alpha-emitting radiation source. In order to protect yourself from alpha radiation, a few sheets of paper or a sheet of aluminium foil would be sufficient.

Less botulinum toxin is needed to kill you, than the minimum dose of plutonium thought to give you a significantly increased chance of cancer in your lifetime.

News, or FUD? I agree that it is the responsible citizen's obligation to constantly question and evaluate the value of technology and mechanization. However, when given highly biased information from both the left and the right, how can one make responsible, informed decisions? Should all decision-making always be based on worst-case-scenario beliefs?

[User Picture]From: bovril
2005-06-27 07:30 pm (UTC)
As I understand it, the danger from plutonium is its radioactivity, not as a chemical poison. If a speck is in the lung, it damages cells and causes cancer. Think asbestos -- it is not a chemical poison, nor is skin exposure particularly dangerous. But inhaling makes it deadly.
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[User Picture]From: en_ki
2005-06-27 08:00 pm (UTC)
I have read in various places that plutonium is the most (chemically) poisonous substance known to man, besides its radioactivity. It is evidently a truism in many circles. What I did not find just now was any real documentation for that truism.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2005-06-27 08:35 pm (UTC)
a quick wikipedia browse on plutonium states that it is by far not the most poisonous, which does not equal a truism, but...
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2005-06-27 08:38 pm (UTC)
If inhaled, it is true that it will emit alpha radiation which in turn may cause cancer. The likelyhood, though, is that radon gas would be more abundant and more carcinogenic. The problem is in defining "speck", the usage of the word implies a certain qulitative feel that suggests conjecture, not proof.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2005-06-27 11:25 pm (UTC)
As a note, the common myth that
plutonium is the “deadliest substance known to
man” is not supported by the scientific literature. It
poses a hazard but is not as immediately harmful to
health as many chemicals. For example, for
inhalation – the exposure of highest risk – breathing
in 5,000 respirable plutonium particles, about
3 microns each, is estimated to increase an
individual’s risk of incurring a fatal cancer about
1% above the U.S. average “background” rate for
all causes combined.

(from http://www.consolidationeis.doe.gov/PDFs/PlutoniumANLFactSheetOct2001.pdf , which isn't obviously the most unbiased source, but it is what is being used for an environmental impac assesment of the project.)

clearly, five thousand respirable "specks" would significantly increase your chances for cancer, but not to the level of certainty.
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[User Picture]From: prester_scott
2005-06-29 03:46 pm (UTC)
All this is beside the point.

The only industrial purpose of plutonium is for nuclear weapons. It is not needed for fuel. In fact, reactors tend to produce it as a byproduct.

So the question we should be asking is, Why does America need more/bigger/better nukes?

There may be a good answer to that question, but if so, I'm sure it is in the realm of top secret military planning and I'll never hear it.
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[User Picture]From: hbergeronx
2005-06-29 04:25 pm (UTC)
Plutonium 238 is unsuitable for nuclear weapons because it is not fissionable and degrades too quuckly. The stated purpose of the plan is to produce it as a power source for military satellites, presumably for intelligence gathering.
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